What are problem-solving skills?

Problems always have two features in common – they have a goal or aim (this is what you hope to achieve) and an obstacle which prevents you achieving this goal. Problems always include an element of decision making and this is an important part of them – employers will want to see you are comfortable making hard decisions and ‘sticking to your guns’.

Solving problems requires a combination of both analytical and creative thinking skills. Employers will want to see that you can use both of these to take the initiative and create positive results. Problem-solving skills relate to your ability to assess situations and analyse information, come up with new ideas and successfully execute these.  Problems can range from small job-specific tasks to broader more complex problems such as finding out why a company’s sales have fallen in the last quarter.

Why are problem-solving skills useful?

Problem-solving skills are up there with communication skills as one of the top skill sets employers are looking for in recent graduates. Employers rate problem-solving skills so highly because they are relevant in virtually any and every job role. No manager wants to hire someone who can’t think for themselves and comes running every time something goes wrong. Problems always require resolution and employers are on the lookout for candidates who can come up with, and execute effective solutions.

Some jobs involve high levels of problem solving – anything technical involving IT or engineering will require you to be an expert problem solver. Similarly, any service based role will require you to solve problems on a daily basis, and if you are applying for a role in one of these sectors you should feel confident you can deal with any problems that occur. Even if problem-solving skills aren’t specified on a job description as a key element of the job role it’s likely that employers will expect you to have them anyway because they are such an all-around skill.

What do employers expect?

Employers are looking for people who can come up with creative and effective solutions, recognise what needs to be done and take action. They are looking for people who are comfortable with making decisions and are confident enough in their own abilities to take responsibility for how they deal with problems.  

They want people who can gather the relevant information to inform their decisions and analyse situations to find out the best way to come through the situation. They also want people who persevere despite difficulties and keep working to secure a positive result.

Employers expect you to demonstrate that you have solved problems in the past, so if you are applying for a job which specifies you need problem-solving skills it can be a good idea to highlight your previous experience on your CV and cover letter.

How can you evidence these skills?

One of the key ways that employers will expect you to evidence these skills is in the interview. Many employers use behavioural interview questions to find out how you have solved problems in the past. They will probably ask questions like “tell me about a difficult situation you have faced in the past”, “describe a time when you came up with new ideas to improve your work environment”, or “tell me about a time when you identified a need and solved it”.

In order to prepare for questions such as these, you will need to spend some time thinking about when you have solved problems in your previous work experience or education. Try to come up with one or two scenarios where you have really excelled and take notes about your memories of this time. Employers assume that how you have handled problems in the past is a good indicator of how you will solve them in the future as their employee.

Employers want to hear how you dealt with the problem so describing the process you used  to decide on a solution is a key element in demonstrating that you understand what it takes to resolve difficult situations. The most important point to focus on is how you solved the problem and in order to do this it’s a good idea to focus on the STAR method when responding to these questions.

S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result

If you describe the event in this way you will give enough context so that your interviewer can understand the situation, whilst not overloading them with irrelevant information. Spend time before your interview thinking about some situations you can describe as it can be difficult to come up with details on the spot. Practice using the STAR method to explain them until you feel comfortable. If you’re stumped for ideas some typical problems that recent graduates have faced are: formulating an argument for an assignment, solving small technical problems, planning events, budgeting for clubs or societies, or dealing with difficult customers or colleagues in part-time jobs.

If problem solving is an integral part of your job employers may ask you to take psychometric tests to objectively measure your problem-solving skills. These tests focus on your ability to logically and rationally think through numerical, spatial or linguistic problems. They may be used in combination with personality tests to measure both your critical and creative thinking skills. If you are asked to take a psychometric test there are a number of websites such as Job Test Prep and Psychometric Success that offer sample tests you can use for practice.

How to develop these skills

If you don’t feel confident about your problem-solving skills there are some tips and tricks to help you improve. One of the best ways to develop your skills is by using a tried and tested method that breaks the problem down into separate elements. The basic steps for solving any problem are:

1.       Defining the problem
2.       Generating ideas for solutions
3.       Evaluating and selecting one of these ideas
4.       Implementing the idea

There are many different methods and tools which elaborate on these steps and can help with solving problems. You could, for example, try using the Simplex Process  for solving business problems next time you encounter one. This is a very elaborate and formal method for sourcing and analysing the information you need and can be very helpful if you are faced with a complex problem. Breaking the problem down into different stages usually helps you to focus in on the essentials, and stops you being overwhelmed by too much information.

A good idea for when you are feeling creatively blocked and are struggling to come up with solutions is to re-phrase the problem or question you are dealing with. Re-phrasing the question helps you to focus on generating solutions rather than feeling blocked by the obstacle in your way. For example, if your problem is that you lack funds to start a great new marketing project thinking “I can’t start this project because I don’t have the money” is a bit of a creative dead-end. Turn this statement into leading questions like “How can I start the project without money?” or “How can I persuade the finance department to give me some extra budget allowance” will instantly get your brain firing off solutions.